In the wake of Joyce: Beckett, O’Brien, and the late modernist novel

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In the spring of 1939, shortly after the publication of At Swim-Two-Birds, Brian O’Nolan (better known by his pen name, Flann O’Brien) sent a copy of his first novel to James Joyce in the care of a mutual friend, Niall Sheridan. On the flyleaf of the book, the young writer had scrawled a seemingly modest inscription: “To James Joyce from the author/Brian O’Nolan with plenty of/what’s on page 305,” where the words “diffidence of the author” had been underlined.1 When Sheridan called on the modernist master to deliver the gift, Joyce informed him that he had already read the book, apparently at the urging of his close friend, one Samuel Beckett. Not long after this encounter, O’Brien had an opportune meeting with Beckett in Dublin, where the author of the recently published Murphy told his counterpart that Joyce had deeply enjoyed the humor of At Swim-Two-Birds. But O’Brien, now evidently feeling a little less diffident, responded that the compliment had come from a writer in Joyce who was nothing more than a “refurbisher of skivvies’ stories.”2 It is perhaps too easy to explain away this apparent change of heart as a product of O’Brien’s growing anxiety of influence, since he was already being compared rather unflatteringly to Joyce in reviews of novel. But when O’ Brien had written to his publisher in May about the prospects of a follow-up novel, he did not miss the opportunity to report that Joyce had read the earlier book, even though the nearly blind novelist required a magnifying glass to do so: “this may be taken as a compliment from the fuehrer,” he quipped.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationA History of the Modernist Novel
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781139542395
ISBN (Print)9781107034952
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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